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3 Tips on Loving Someone Through Mental Illness

“When someone is going through a storm, your silent presence is more powerful than a million empty words.” — Thema Davis

First of all, I want to begin by saying it is not a burden to love someone with a mental illness. It is a blessing. I say this because through my experience, I have learned valuable life lessons and have become a better person because of the situation. Therefore, I count it as a positive thing that I am able to love someone with mental illnesses and love her through it.

When it comes to mental illness, the numbers are quite shocking. For an illness that is so alienating, the number of individuals struggling is substantial. There are 43.8 million U.S. adults who will experience mental illness within a given year. My best friend of more than 10 years is one of those people. She is really more like a sister, considering we have lived together, shared closets and know the detailed history of each other’s text messages.

She has given me permission to write about this because there is such a stigma surrounding mental illness. We both agree it needs to be challenged because the truth is we all encounter it in some way, shape or form in our lifetime. Shouldn’t we start the conversation on how to help each other out?

For my friend, it was like an avalanche. She didn’t see it coming, and it surrounded her completely, sending her tumbling and plummeting down a mountain without control. She felt icy, isolated and inhibited. The period of time at the beginning was the most difficult, a day spent in bed turned to a full weekend. I noticed right away that something had changed inside of her.

Fast forward a year, she transferred colleges (to be closer to her family), and I am a few states away. She would call me after class or work and sound extremely lethargic and not her usual, spritely self. When we would Facetime (every Monday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.), she would be withdrawn, and I could tell she wasn’t eating properly.

A simple task, like explaining her graphic design project, would stress her out to the point of irritability. When it came to her weekend plans, she mostly expressed her desire to stay indoors because of her serious exhaustion. She mentioned her heightened anxiety with finals coming up and also her energy levels being way down.

After a year of panic attacks without warning, missed classes and a feeling of hopelessness, I told her that this hurdle was something that even our strong friendship couldn’t take on alone. I researched a facility near her that helped students with mental health issues and Skyped with her through her first appointment. She made progress almost instantly. She also found solace in the fact that she wasn’t alone and there were others who had been through the same things, who could now help her. I went to visit her a few months into her treatment and could see the hope radiating from her eyes. She was going to tackle this monster inside of her, and with time, patience and a whole lot of love, she did.

I tell her story so that you don’t feel alone. Whether it’s you or a loved one that’s going through the storm, there is a light at the end of the tunnel found through mindful action. Here are my tips to you, if you’re helping a loved one through their struggle with mental illness:

1. Get educated.

There are countless resources online that can help you understand how your loved one needs to be supported through this time. In my friend’s situation, she was actually dealing with co-occurring disorders. In addition to an anxiety disorder, she was also diagnosed with serious depression and an eating disorder as well. Having basic knowledge of all of these things really helped me to be aware of her needs and how I could be the most help to her.

2. Be empathetic and present.

Regardless of whether you have experienced some type of mental illness, you still possess the ability to empathize with your loved one. Have you ever felt really down on yourself or experience grief? Your loved one is experiencing those same types of feelings but on daily, repetitive basis. Showing empathy can mean that you just sit and listen or buying your friend a journal to write random thoughts in. Every small act of compassion toward your loved one will give them the additional emotional support they need.

3. Be encouraging.

Every situation is unique, so cater these tips to what you think will be appropriate to help your loved one. Whether it’s a parent, friend, sibling or co-worker who approaches you about their experience or starts to show signs of mental illness, I strongly encourage you to reach out and help them. Also, find out more information on what we can do as a community to address mental illness. The more we talk about this, the more we can help those struggling to feel less alone.

How have you helped someone you love deal with their mental illness? Share your stories in the comments below!

 If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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